Groceries are one of our major bills. Next to housing and transportation, food and drink is the largest expense for most households. A family of four spends up to $1,283 per month, according to the USDA. Even thrifty shoppers spend around $600. As the prices of food items — particularly for products like pork, fruit, and eggs — continue to increase, people find ways to try and save money on their grocery bills.
Most people have seen, or at least heard of, the TLC series Extreme Couponing. The series chronicles real-life shoppers who have a money-saving habit that allows them to stock garages, pantries and storage rooms sky-high with paper towels, groceries, and other grocery store merchandise. Although the series follows these shoppers on their quest for savings, it doesn’t really get down to the nitty-gritty — the logistics.
How, exactly, do these people get carts full of groceries and toiletries for pennies on the dollar? Is this realistic, and if so, how much of a time commitment does this involve? That’s what we wanted to find out. To determine how exactly extreme couponing works, we contacted grocery stores, reviewed coupon policies, and sale ads. We also reviewed information from some professionals, who are well-versed in extreme couponing.
After spending some time in the world of extreme couponing, we found that you can in fact save hundreds of dollars in a single shopping trip. With the right amount of diligence, and knowledge of the ins and outs, extreme couponing can be fun and exciting. Here’s how it works.
1. Know your local store’s policies
The way people save so much money with coupons is by using multiple coupons, doubling or tripling coupons, or by matching a manufacturer’s coupon with a store’s advertised sale. To achieve this, you first have to know what your store’s rules are on coupons, and each store is different. Here are a few of the store policies we found pertaining to doubling and coupon matching:
- The value of the coupon (or doubled coupon) may not exceed the price of the item.
- You have to use your bonus card to take advantage of doubling.
- You can only double coupons with a value of 50 cents or less. If you have a coupon worth a value of between 51 cents and 99 cents, it will be “doubled” to $1.
- Only one coupon for a specific item will be doubled, the rest will be redeemed at face value. For instance, if you have ten coupons for 50 cents off of Coca Cola, you will only have one coupon worth $1, the rest are only worth 50 cents.
- No free internet coupons or internet coupons with a value of over $5 (Giant may or may not accept your internet coupons).
- No doubling or tripling coupons at all.
- No cash back for coupons of any kind.
- If you happen to find a really valuable coupon, you can only use one for each item and you cannot use more than ten of the same coupons for the same item.
- Accepts most legitimate manufacturer coupons
- Accepts internet coupons as long as they are legible, contain the words “manufacturer coupon,” and are not for free items.
- You can only use one coupon per item.
- If the value of the coupon exceeds the price of the item, that excess will be deducted from your grocery bill.
- No doubling, tripling, or percentage off coupons at all.
- You can combine sale items and coupons (except for percent off coupons)
- If the coupon exceeds the price of the item, the coupon’s value will be reduced to the price.
- You can combine one manufacturer coupon with CVS coupons (unless the coupon states otherwise).
- You can use more than one dollar off coupon, or more than one buy one get one free coupon (unless the coupon state otherwise).
- CVS does reserve the right to process your coupons in any order.
- You cannot have more coupons than items.
- You can use internet coupons if they include a barcode.
2. Coupons galore
If you want to get into extreme couponing, you’re going to regularly need as many coupons as you can get your hands on. Subscribe to some of the local news papers, pick up coupons each time you go to the grocery store, and save every manufacturer coupon you find on packaging. Money Crashers even suggests writing to the manufacturers of your favorite foods and asking them to send you coupons. You can also ask your friends and neighbors if you can have the coupon sections from their newspapers. Online coupon printers are not always safe in regards to computer viruses, but if you go straight to the manufacturer’s website, or straight to a store’s website, you can obtain coupons relatively safely. However, always be cautious when printing coupons from an online source.
You want to have a system of organization for your coupons. Many couponers suggest using a coupon binder. It’s a good idea to sort them by food, beverage, or toiletry category. Within those categories, you can further sort your coupons by expiration date. Once you have some coupons built up, it is truly a matter of comparing your coupons to your store’s sales and policies, and then finding deals beyond the norm. For instance, combining manufacturer coupons and CVS’s sale ads made it so we could purchase cold medicine for 40 cents per bottle. At Walmart, coupons made it so we could buy toothpaste for 29 cents.
3. Budget your time
Extreme couponing can be budget-friendly. However, if it becomes more than a fun, money-saving hobby, it is not really worth the effort. Time reported on this very subject. It highlight’s former extreme couponer, Christy Rakoczy’s blog post, where she tells how her extreme couponing turned from a three-year long shopping habit to something bordering along the lines of unhealthy.
Rakoczy would target stores with more lenient coupon policies like CVS, Rite-Aid, and Walgreens. She would buy excessive amount of toothpaste, over-the-counter medication, and diabetes monitors — things she either did not need large amounts of or, she did not need them at all. The items began consuming space in her home, and she continued to spend more and more time on couponing. She explains in her blog how extreme couponing is not an activity that involves a few coupons here and there, you have to be truly committed to finding coupons each week, buying multiple newspapers, and organizing your coupons.
Our experience inside the world of extreme couponing led us to a similar conclusion. This is absolutely a time-consuming task, and only worthwhile if you have free time to put towards it. It is likely a more financially and practically rewarding hobby than many others, but by no means should you quit your day job to take this hobby on.
4. Use coupon apps
Because time is such a consideration for an extreme couponer, couponing apps are becoming more popular for those who want to save. SnipSnap, Yowza, and Grocery Smarts are examples of such apps. Yowza finds deals at stores in your area. You can save coupons straight to your phone and when your arrive at the store, all you have to do is show your phone to the cashier who can scan each coupon without any paper or printers involved.
SnipSnap allows you to scan paper coupons so you have a digital copy on your phone. The app helps you organize coupons into a searchable database. SnipSnap is incredibly useful, but be careful when using this app at stores, as some stores require you to have the original copy of the coupon, and they may not accept a scanned copy.
Grocery Smarts, like other grocery apps, helps you find coupons. But this app also helps you search through store ads to find deals in your area. It constantly updates its pricing information and it does some of the leg work for you.
When done properly, extreme couponing can save you a ton of money. People who end up with extra groceries and toiletries are often able to donate some of these items to charity, which makes the effort more meaningful. When determining whether or not something is worth it, it’s always wise to track the amount of time you are spending and the exact savings. How much is your time worth? You may find out this hobby pays off big, or you may find it is simply not enough savings for the time and effort. Either way, it will be fun to try.